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Hand & Glove
Review by: Gunther Schmidl
Game: Lock & Key
By: Adam Cadre

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Note: Naturally, this review contains a lot of spoilerage. If you haven't played to the part where the release notes become relevant, don't bother reading on. If you want to solve the game yourself without any hint at all, don't read on. Sorry, but I can't avoid spoilers and still write about the game. In fact, this isn't so much a review as rather a collection of thoughts I had while playing the game.

If I were mean, I'd say that playing an Adam Cadre game has become something like watching a M. Night Shyamalan movie -- start the game then try to figure out what the twist's going to be. It's been like that for Photopia, 9:05, 1981 and Shrapnel, and the announcement immediately made me think of Andrew Plotkin's Spider And Web.

However, unlike Shyamalan's lame over-hyped SUPER PLOT TWIST that I had figured out 10 minutes into Sixth Sense, Lock & Key turns into something completely unexpected.

When I first saw what the game seemed to have turned into, a gigantic trial-and-error puzzle, I considered stopping to play immediately. Fortunately, I didn't.

It turns out you play a dungeon master in the original sense -- you have to design a dungeon filled with death traps to beef up the security in a feudal king's cell block. You have access to 100,000 crowns and a plethora of traps (some of which, cleverly, are not available), which you must use to kill a tricky adventurer, much like the ones you get to play in typical dungeon crawls, except exaggerated into ridiculous dimensions. In short, the game is a gigantic "babel fish puzzle" (as in The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, except a lot more complicated). If you've played Bullfrog's Dungeon Master, it's, er, nothing like that.

At first I thought there'd be a second trick to the game - something like "Ok, I need to create a diversion so I can run away and save my hide" or "What if I just kill him on the way in?" or, first and foremost, "How about I make this a one-way trip, and screw the guards?" But after a few rounds of trial and error, the depth of the implementation made it clear that there wouldn't be a quick and easy way out.

So I turned to ifMUD to team up with other people in an effort to solve the game. My co-conspirators were Duncan "BoingBall" Cross and Duncan "Thrax" Stevens.

We quickly found out that the main thing the puzzle solve routine is about is cause and effect (which indeed turns out to be Adam's motivation for writing Lock & Key in the first place), so we started compiling a list of things that would happen depending on other things and, through trial and error, quickly narrowed down a sequence of traps that seemed useful. To wit:

Thrax asks, "oh, wait--maybe the foam on the fire trap?"
Gunther says, "yes"
Gunther says, "whereupon he uses a spell"
Thrax says, "okay, and then he tosses steaks to the dogs"
Thrax asks, "so maybe he doesn't have enough steaks for dogs and lion?"
Thrax tries that.

Unfortunately, we ran into a dead end (so to speak), but a very mild hint brought us back on track, and we figured out the solution pretty quickly afterwards.

I'll be the first to admit that I don't like hard puzzles. Yet, I enjoyed this game enough to sink my teeth into it for several hours and not let go until it was solved. What makes Lock & Key so enjoyable? I'll try to list, in no particular order, the key points.

  • Teamwork. Playing this game alone can be very frustrating, especially if you don't read the text carefully and miss a detail. Four eyes see more than two (and similarly clichéd lines). Of course, that goes for other games as well, but I found it worked particularly well in this one.
  • It's funny. The ways in which Boldo, the adventurer, keeps escaping your little traps (and the way in which the guards unwittingly aid him through their stupidity) range from amusing to hilarious, and are still funny the fifth time; they also change in subtle (or not-so-subtle) ways if you're making progress. Adam uses countless dei-ex-machina to aid the adventurer in his escape, but they're sufficiently ridiculous to make you forgive him.
  • It's small enough. The dungeon you have to fit is so small you can keep all the various effects in your head without having to rely on too much scribbling. I used five save-games, but no paper at all.
  • It's rewarding. As mentioned, you can see when you're going in the right direction, and that's very satisfying (even if the actual goal of the game is killing a human being -- but then, it's his head or yours).
  • It's bug free. At least as far as I could see, I encountered not a single game-stopping bug. Of course, some things weren't implemented, like my feeble hope that an iron-dissolving mist would kill the bleeding Boldo by removing all the iron from his blood, but one can't think of anything.

Of course there're a few minor problems, too -- there's basically only one solution; you only find out a few things after you've spent some time with the dungeon (like the round-trip rule); and a few more commands to deal with more than one object at the same time would be appreciated. However, it looks like most of these complaints will be addressed in the next version, so forget I said anything.

So, Adam has done it again -- another short(ish), enjoyable game to prove he is one of the best writers in modern IF. And as a bonus fact, it's the first Glulx game I've played that actually looks pleasing to my eye. So a double hooray for Adam, and let's hope he keeps them games coming.

(If you want to see a winning transcript from Lock & Key, you can go here. Please don't do so before you've tried yourself or aren't interested in trying yourself at all.)

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